Cafe Reviews

Let's Make it Official: Arizona Needs a State Food

You would think that after 100 years of statehood, Arizona would have gotten hungry enough to give itself an official food.


Today, the only state symbol you might want to eat is the state fish, the Apache trout. But given its listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and limited fishing restrictions, it hardly seems a viable candidate.

Former Arizona legislator Ken Cheuvront, who served in the Arizona House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and the Arizona Senate from 2003 to 2011, doesn't recall a state food initiative during his 16 years in office (although he told me if it were to come to a vote today, he would pick the Sonoran enchilada).

And according to the State Library, Archives, and Public Records Office, there hasn't been a bill regarding a candidate for a state food in the past 15 years.

It isn't as if we haven't had the time to think about it. As early as 1980, several other states in the nation already were busily claiming their own Legislature-passed culinary fare: Georgia with its peaches, Maryland with its blue crabs, and Indiana with its Hoosier pie (Hoosier pie?). Even some of America's major cities were getting in on the act, albeit unofficially, with New Orleans becoming famous for its sweet beignets, Philadelphia for its hefty Philly cheesesteaks, and Chicago for its ketchup-less hot dog.

Arizona, however, seemed to be taking a less-homespun approach to securing its place in food history, one that haunts us today. In 1953, brothers Maurice and Richard ("Mac" and "Dick") McDonald began to franchise their successful restaurant, McDonald's, in Phoenix and, in 1975, the city of Sierra Vista became the first home of a McDonald's drive-thru.

Not a great start to state culinary pride. And today, given the state's multitude of chain restaurants, most Arizonans might have preferred snagging fry bread before South Carolina did in 2005 rather than carrying on a tradition of standardization.

Several months ago, local Mexican restaurant chain Macayo's started a petition (packaged as an advertising campaign, and complete with coupon) to vote for the deep-fried burrito known as the chimichanga as Arizona's state food. Which got me thinking . . .

Being the 16th-most populous state in the United States is reason enough to demand our own fare, but being the stomping ground of some of the oldest food practices and most landscape- and weather-diverse eats from a variety of cultures in North America is a better one. So why does it seem like so many Arizonans take such an apathetic approach when it comes to celebrating the culinary influences of other cultures?

In her book Taste of the States: A Food History of America, author Hilde Gabriel Lee blames senior citizens. She says that until the middle of the 20th century, Mexican and Native American dishes in Arizona were predominant, but an influx of retirees moving into the state changed the food to "more all-American, with many Midwestern dishes prevailing."

And when it comes to our ignorance of indigenous plants, agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist, and writer Gary Paul Nabhan not only encourages us, in his book Gathering the Desert, to get educated and eat them, but he makes a case for those used to consume such plants but no longer do:

"Because so many Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in the American Southwest now suffer from diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases, the demise of native plants in their diets has been tentatively related to the upswing of the incidence of certain diseases," Nabhan writes.

Both authors' viewpoints make an excellent case for Arizona's heritage foods — staples of the state's Native American tribes for centuries — as top candidates for our official state fare.

The blossom of the majestic saguaro, the tree-size cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, may be the state wildflower, but its sweet red fruit — long prized by the O'odham tribes — can be used to make syrup, candy, jam, and even barbecue sauce. Plus, as one of the more strenuous desert harvests (think summer heat and a fruit height of 15 feet and up), it gets an A for effort. Another thorny palate-pleaser, the prickly pear cactus, might best be known as the ingredient in Cactus Candy, the sugar-coated red squares inside the Phoenix-based company's classic yellow box with a smiling cartoon cactus, but its uses extend beyond the confectionery kind. Its pads and flowers can be had in the form of salsas, jellies, sorbet, fruit bars, and margaritas. And (bonus) there's even evidence that suggests it's a superb source of antioxidants and that eating the pads can lower cholesterol.

But why stop at cacti?

Wisconsin officially scammed corn as its state food in 1989, but it, along with squash and beans, was being grown some 4,000-plus year ago by the region's Native Americans. (Such tribes as the Hohokam grew all three in the same fields.) The Navajos obtained the Navajo-Churro sheep (the oldest surviving breed of sheep brought to North America in the 16th century, and used to feed the region's Spanish settlers) as part of their culture. And although not the flashiest of state food candidates, mesquite pod flour, rich in protein and naturally sweet, makes for tasty pancakes or a substitute for refined sugar in baked goods. It was a staple among indigenous peoples of the Southwest, not to mention a valued food for many Arizonans until around the 20th century.

If it's a controversial candidate you're seeking for an official state food, you'll get it, in spades, in regard to two Mexican-inspired creations.

When it comes to the chimichanga, the Macayo's story goes that founder Woody Johnson invented it in 1946 when he accidentally dropped a meat-filled burro into a fryer. Other it-came-from-Tucson-but-not-from-Macayo's arguments regarding the chimi's beginnings abound (including a second accidental dropping of a food into the fryer) in addition to two claims of it first being served in Mexico: one, as a variation on the flauta, the rolled corn tortilla, in the early 1920s by an Irish/Mexican family, and a second as the variant chivichanga.

And if your head isn't completely spinning yet, there's another theory that the dish was part of the local cuisine of the Pimería Alta (the upper land of the Pimas surrounding both parts of southern Arizona and northern Sonora in Mexico) as early as the 18th century.

Not nearly as folklore-infested and chain-pimped as the chimichanga, it is mainly agreed upon that the roots of a second Mexican-inspired contender, the Sonoran hot dog (a mesquite-smoked and bacon-wrapped frank tucked into a bun and smothered in beans, mayonnaise, chopped tomatoes, and other goodness) stem from Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora. Though not an Arizona invention, its popularity throughout the state makes it a viable choice.

For Valley folk, the good news is that we can celebrate our 100 years of statehood by eating the aforementioned state food candidates.

Kai, located in the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa on the Gila River Indian Reservation near Chandler and Arizona's only five-star and five-diamond restaurant, serves up a top-notch offering of Native American cuisine. Macayo's may think its chimichangas are the best, but restaurants like Carolina's, Pedro's Mexican Restaurant, and Valle Luna also are worth a bite. And for hot dog fans who like to eat late, Nogales Hot Dogs, the stand serving Sonoran-style hot dogs on the southwest corner of 20th Street and Indian School Road, opens around 6 p.m. and runs late into the evening.

If states like Missouri can claim the ice cream cone, Oklahoma barbecued pork, and Illinois popcorn, then Arizona certainly can give itself an official food, especially after having a century to think about it. Even if the choices are vast and at times controversial, at least there's discussion.

If and when an official state food does come to a vote, mine will be for an underdog: mesquite flour. Despite years of attempted eradication by ranchers, the mesquite tree has persisted — its pods, not to mention wood, utilized by humankind for centuries. And if that isn't a testament to Arizona grit, I'm not sure what is.

Of course, I'll have a prickly pear margarita in hand to celebrate.

The drink's fruit, according to our unofficial poll on Chow Bella, was the runner-up favorite among our readers, second only to the Sonoran hot dog. (We pitted the dog against the prickly pear fruit — bacon prevailed yet again.)